Skip to main content

150 Years Later: A "Brief" History of the 15th Amendment and Other Voting Laws

December 12, 2020
Patent for a election booths, guard rails, and ballot boxes

This year has been an over-the-top historic one that will, no doubt, have many books written about it someday, mostly for the struggle it's been. But what's been notable this year to commemorate is the celebration of two suffrage amendments' anniversaries: February of this year marked the 150th anniversary of the ratification of the 15th Amendment, and in August, it was the 100th anniversary of the ratification of the 19th Amendment.

I wrote a blog post in August for the 19th Amendment anniversary, but wanted to save the anniversary of the 15th Amendment for November (but it took me a while to write this, so now December), the time of the year that the topic of voting rights is most commonly discussed. 

But saying I'm going to discuss the history of voting rights in Tennessee, that makes you think this blog post is going to be reeeeaaaally long, and in all honesty, it's lengthy: be prepared to be here for a bit. But I've narrowed the topic as much as I could, and I've provided a few recommendations of books and articles to check out if you'd like to continue the research yourself. 

That being said, this is a tough topic to take on while trying to walk a straight line without delving into the world of politics that usually goes hand-in-hand with voting rights. I hope my line stays straight with this blog post, and as a disclaimer (for all my blog posts), I'm no expert on this topic, but I've done my best with the research from going through our records in Archives and other secondary sources. 

Without further ado, pull up a seat and get comfy.  

Enfranchisement Before the 15th Amendment

Prior to this Amendment, voting rights were left up to the states. When the country was founded, those in charge grappled with a choice: property owners' rights vs. those that did not own property. Property owners won out. And any states that chose to enfranchise non-property owners had the right to do so. So, that primarily meant white males, with property, were the only ones permitted to vote for quite some time. 

When Andrew Jackson was in office, he worked to advance the rights of those who did not own property. This meant that by roughly 1860, most white men without property were also enfranchised.

Entering an arduous Reconstruction period after the Civil War, three amendments were ratified, establishing civil and legal rights for African Americans, and setting a new precedent for federal and state laws yet to come.

The 13th Amendment that abolished slavery, was ratified in 1865; the 14th Amendment that granted citizenship to all persons born or naturalized in the United States—including former slaves—guaranteed all citizens “equal protection of the laws," was ratified in 1868.

Nashville Union and American clipping discussing the 14th Amendment
Clipping from the Nashville Union and American highlighting the 14th Amendment

These amendments were of the upmost and vital importance for the lives of African Americans. With the Democrat Andrew Johnson in the presidential hot seat, and his southern sympathies leaning towards pardoning confederate leaders who went against the mission of emancipation, laws protecting the rights of African Americans were needed on the federal level. 

The 14th Amendment was the first step for enfranchisement for African American men, and it was where the rift between abolitionists and women suffragists started. Where suffragist leaders Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton wanted universal suffrage (meaning for white women), abolitionists like Frederick Douglass, William Lloyd Garrison, and Wendell Phillips knew that asking for universal suffrage was a tall order, and might hurt the amendment's chances - and it was a matter of life or death for African Americans. 

Elaine Weiss expands on this rift that occurred between the women's suffrage leaders and abolitionists, one that got ugly prior to ratification of the 14th and 15th Amendments, but was mended after ratification when women's suffrage leaders recognized the need and importance of the 15th Amendment. Weiss explains the mindset of the women's suffrage leaders perfectly...

"When forced to choose between truly equal rights and women's rights, between insisting on justice for all or accepting injustice to protect their own cause, the Suffs almost invariably chose the easier, less noble, path."

For more on the pattern and history of racism within the women's suffrage movement, I STRONGLY recommend that you check out Elaine Weiss' The Woman's's really well written.

The Third and Last of the Reconstruction Amendments

Clipping from the New Era newspaper out of Washington DC, dated 4-07-1870
Clipping from the New Era newspaper out of Washington, D.C., dated April 7th, 1870

The last of these amendments addressed the suffrage rights of African American male citizens. So first, let's establish what the 15th Amendment was and how it changed previous suffrage laws. 

The exact wording of the amendment is...

"The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude. The Congress shall have the power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation."

Just like with the 19th Amendment, this wasn't the end-all, be-all of suffrage rights. There were still many individuals living in the United States and in U.S. territories, who were disenfranchised and unable to voice their democratic opinion. 

But first, I wanted to point out that in order for the southern seceded states to be readmitted to Congress, it was conditional that they ratified the 14th and15th Amendments. All southern seceded states ratified within a few months, except for Tennessee, and the amendment passed into law on February 3rd, 1870 with Iowa becoming the deciding vote. 

Tennessee was actually the first southern state readmitted to the Union in 1866 prior to the 15th Amendment, so that meant the stipulation to rejoin the Union wasn't imposed upon them like the other Confederate states. But, Tennessee still refused to ratify mostly because of the same belief by other states that refused to ratify (and a large reason held by the Confederate states for seceding from the Union in 1861) -  they didn't like the federal government's intervention into state's legislative affairs...or the historically-common scapegoat of "state's rights". 

So it was ironic that Tennessee was the first state in the South to allow African American men to vote before the 15th Amendment (in 1867), and the first in the country to have elections with massive voter turnouts of African Americans. By the end of 1867, there were approximately 40,000 African American men that had registered to vote. 

Before the implementation of literacy tests, poll taxes, and other laws that strived to prevent African American men from voting, there were several African American men elected to political offices in the state. Here are a few of these men...

  • Samson Keeble (originally a barber from Rutherford County) became the first African American elected to the state legislature.
  • Samuel McElwee (was born into slavery in Madison County, was moved to Haywood County after emancipation) served 3 terms in the TN General Assembly (1882-88). 
  • James C. Napier (born to free parents in Nashville) served on the Nashville City Council and was the first African American to preside over the council from 1878-1886.
  • Randall Brown was elected and served as Davidson County Commissioner; he was the first African American to hold elected office in the state.

127 years later, on April 2nd, 1997, Tennessee finally ratified the 15th Amendment after being the last of the original 37 in the Union that had not committed an act of support for it. 

To learn more about Tennessee's history of Reconstruction and Disenfranchisement of African Americans, this was one of the resources I used. If you'd like to learn more about Tennessee enfranchising African American men, and then the backlash after several African American men were elected to government offices, this is another good resource from TSLA

Laws established in TN, after the 15th Amendment

Memphis news clipping from March, 1889 referencing the new voting laws
Clipping from the Memphis Daily Appeal, referencing the Dortch Law

Among the violence towards freed African Americans, the creation and surge of the Ku Klux Klan, and starting with Tennessee, states deliberating the use of Black Codes (restrictive laws designed to limit the freedom of African Americans and ensure their availability as a cheap labor force) - it became increasingly apparent that the reconstruction period would not come easy. 

Several southern states looked for ways to disenfranchise African Americans and many other minorities still unable to vote, without violating the 15th Amendment. Like in Mississippi, their plan included "...a dizzying array of poll taxes, literacy tests, understanding clauses, newfangled voter registration rules, and "good character" clauses." 

In Carol Anderson's One Person, No Vote book (which is where the above quote is also from), she describes the endeavor of the Southern states during Reconstruction as follows: 

"After Reconstruction, the plan was to take years of state-sponsored 'trickery and fraud' and transform those schemes into laws that would keep blacks away from the voting booth, disenfranchise as many as possible, and, most important, ensure that no African American would ever assume real political power again." 

Tennessee was no exception to this mission, and enacted four new laws in 1889. The timing of Tennessee's legislature of passing the laws was part of an "electoral reform", where the Democratic Party looked to seize an opportunity and take control of both houses of the legislature and put an end to the "most consistently competitive political system in the South"...and ultimately end the progress made by the 15th Amendment. 

From the Tennessee Encyclopedia, here are the acts that easily "sailed" through the general assembly in 1889 and on past the governor, with the intent to disenfranchise as many African American voters as possible, as well as some poor white voters...

Myers Law

This law was named after Rep. Thomas R. Myers of Bedford County, and it required voters in districts or towns, that had cast more than 500 votes in 1888, to register again to vote at least 20 days prior to every upcoming election. 

Lea Law

This law was named for Benjamin J. Lea, a lawyer that served for the Tennessee Supreme Court from 1876 to 1878 and again from 1890 to 1894. The law defined that there should be separate ballot boxes for state and federal elections. This was intended to circumvent expected congressional legislation, namely the Lodge Election Bill that sadly failed but had the intention of supervising federal elections; this would've been an extra security blanket essentially for the 15th Amendment, enforcing the voting rights for African Americans.

When Congress failed to pass the Lodge Bill, the Tennessee State Legislature rescinded the Lea Act in 1893. The Lodge Bill was a precursor to future Civil Rights' and Voting Rights' legislation, namely the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Dortch Law

This law was named for Representative Josiah H. Dortch and it provided for the implementation of a secret ballot, which already sounds fishy. Initially the Law, which applied to 78 civil districts in 37 counties (that contained the majority of the African Americans that lived in the state), permitted voters to obtain assistance in marking their ballots if they had voted in 1857. But obviously the catch was that it disenfranchised all African American voters who were illiterate, while initially protecting older, white illiterates. 

In the book The Shaping of Southern Politics, the Dortch law is summarized to its roots...

"In other words, the Dortch law allowed Democrats to appear honest, but still retain the possibility of artificially inflating their totals if the need arose."

Some newspapers, like the Memphis Daily Appeal, were all for both this law and the Myers' Law...

Clipping from the Memphis Daily Appeal, 3-19-1889
Clipping from the Memphis Daily Appeal from March, 1889, highlighting the Dortch and Myers Laws

Imposition of a Poll Tax

Republican Banner clipping from September, 1867
Republican Banner clipping from September, 1867, discussing the need of "colored men" to pay a poll tax in 1867

Anytime voting rights are discussed at length in reference to disenfranchisement, you can bet poll taxes are probably somewhere in the conversation. It was a "privilege tax" described by one Nashville Banner article, that was often vehemently argued against, even by President Andrew Johnson. And also by the Knoxville Sentinel...

Clipping from the Nashville Banner from 1889
Clipping from the Nashville Banner, discussing the Knoxville Sentinel's opinion on poll taxes

When the poll tax in Tennessee was implemented at the discretion of the general assembly, the revenue would be used for the common school fund. Despite the push back for the disenfranchisement it would cause, it was still implemented in 1889.

Payment was required to vote, but no county officer came to collect the tax. In fact, according to one clipping I found of a man complaining about being forced to pay, so few (maybe 10%) are actually required to pay so he was arguing that he shouldn't, and he'd take it to the Supreme Court!  

So again, a "privilege tax" is how they deemed it. Taxpayers could choose not to pay, but it only meant that they were giving up the right to vote in that year's election. Unlike some states, Tennessee's poll tax was not cumulative; payment of a single year's tax permitted one to vote in that year.

Sometimes people even found some harsh ways to avoid paying the taxes, like in the clipping below. Or on the document below this clipping, you'll see where people applied to be exempted from paying the tax for medical reasons. 

Knoxville Journal clipping from April, 1889
Knoxville Journal clipping from April, 1889, discussing a poll tax dispute
Application for exemption from poll taxes from 1938

Over time, the reach of the poll tax spread throughout the state. But according to political scientist, V. O. Key Jr., in 1949, it wasn't the size of the poll tax that inhibited voting as much as the inconvenience of paying it.

Depending on where you were in the state, it was either made easier to pay the poll tax or much harder. And this manipulation of the tax allowed for the rise of urban bosses and political machines. Urban politicians bought large blocks of poll tax receipts and distributed them to African Americans and whites, who then voted as instructed. 

Over the first half of the 20th century, several fights were led to try to repeal the tax, which was eventually removed by the 1953 constitutional convention.

Other Means to Disenfranchise

The "Grandfather Clause"

Similar to the Dortch Law that looked to use past elections as reference, the term "Grandfather Clause" came from a Jim Crow law that actually referred to grandfathers.

From an 1898 Louisiana Law, this clause referred to allowing men the right to vote only if they'd voted before in 1867, or if they were the son or grandson of someone that had voted in 1867. Since few if any African American men had the right to vote prior to 1870, you see how this clause's intention was to disenfranchise as many African Americans as possible. 

Property and Literacy Tests

I already briefly mentioned literacy tests before, but here's a brief description of each. Property tests were pretty self-explanatory but limited voters to those that owned land. Since many African Americans at that time were sharecroppers or didn't own land, this was a disheartening requirement. And literacy tests! I mean come on, these tests were deliberately created to be either confusing, too long, or judged in a variety of ways to purposefully disenfranchise voters - especially those that couldn't read. 


Chattanooga Daily Times clipping referencing the public opinion about lynching
Chattanooga news clipping from 1937 referencing the federal antilynching law up for debate in the U.S. House, that never passed.

A "devastating form of social control" as referred to by one of my sources, lynching was another form of intimidation often used to keep African Americans from voting, but also for many other reasons that lynch mobs perceived as justifiable. These occurred from the 1880's (and I'm sure earlier) to the 1960's (if not later), and often drew a crowd of onlookers, sometimes including their children. 

The worst case of violence against African American voters, according to Weiss' book, occurred in Ocoee, Florida by the KKK, just after the 19th Amendment passed in 1920. They warned African American women and men to stay away from the polls, and those that did attempt to vote were met with brutal violence. At least 50 men and women were killed during the election day massacre that saw several men lynched and at least one woman burned to death. 

The Fight for Voting Rights for the next 150 Years

I'm going to fast forward now to wrap things up a bit. I already mentioned that this is a lengthy topic to delve into (which I've gone down several rabbit holes in doing this research), so forgive me if there's anything left out, and that includes talks of the 19th Amendment since I wrote a whole thing about this back in August - again, check it out here if you'd like to learn about TN's history with the 19th Amendment. 

Name badge for Anita Williams, for the National League of Women Voters
Name badge for Anita Williams, President of the National League of Women Voters in 1926

But after the ratification of the 19th Amendment, many women and men still did not have the right to vote. Or, there were still the continuing intimidation tactics by many whites that didn't want to see voting rights extended to African American women or any other minorities.

What I discussed earlier about the leaders of the women's suffrage movement in the 19th century regarding their racist preferences continued up through the culmination of the movement in 1920; some of the leaders of the movement assured supporters that white supremacy would not be threatened by the 19th Amendment. 

Tennessean clipping from October, 1920 encouraging white women to register to vote to block African American women from voting
Tennessean clipping from October, 1920, encouraging white women to register to vote to block Black women from registering to vote

Weiss highlights in her book how many women had to continue the fight for many years after the 19th Amendment. Bear with me, this is a long quote...

"Native Americans finally succeeded in convincing Congress to grant them citizenship and suffrage in 1924, yet many Native Americans continued to be barred from voting by state laws until 1957. Asian Americans, even native born, were not permitted to become citizens or vote until the mid-twentieth century: Chinese Americans were not allowed citizenship or suffrage until 1943; for those of Asian Indian descent, these rights were withheld until 1946; and Japanese Americans were forced to wait until 1952. African Americans in southern states, while possessing suffrage on paper, could not freely exercise their franchise until 1965 and still face obstacles." 

For more on many women's continuing struggle, here's a good article from NPR

"One Man, One Vote"

Fast forward 40 years, and we come to "one man, one vote", which is a principle rooted in the belief that individuals should have equal representation in voting. I bring it up because one of the court cases that led to the Supreme Court ruling actually began in Tennessee. 

This is another topic that could be a blog post on its own, so I'll simply tell you what the case was and what it led to...

Baker v. Carr (1962) 

Tennessean clipping from December, 1964, regarding Baker v Carr
Tennessee clipping from 1964 discussing Baker v Carr

This case started with Memphis resident, Charles Baker, suing the state over the fact that they were still using a 1901 statute to determine the electoral districts for state and congressional representatives. 

In Anderson's "One Person, No Vote" book, she states...

"In using the 1901 statute to draw congressional districts, Tennessee had diluted the votes of some citizens while privileging others. That dilution violated the Fourteenth Amendment's equal protection clause."

The case eventually made it to the Supreme Court, which issued a landmark ruling that "finally began to place restrictions on how state legislatures drew the boundaries for districts." 

Voting Rights Act

And finally, we come to the act that addressed disenfranchisement head on. The Voting Right's Act (VRA) was signed into law on August 6th, 1965 by President Johnson, outlawing the many voting laws and practices that were adopted in the South, after the 15th Amendment.

Anderson simplifies the VRA's intention:

"The Voting Rights Act 'thrust the federal government into the role of supervising voting in large parts of the country to protect African Americans' right to vote, a duty it had not assumed since Reconstruction." 

But voting rights continue even today to be a highly-discussed and important topic, since the Act was weakened by a 2013 ruling by the Supreme Court. But to steer clear of anything political, I'll stop there and simply say it is an important topic that every citizen should be at least somewhat familiar with, as it is our civic right and responsibility to voice our opinions through our vote. 

The below books are ones I unfortunately haven't had the opportunity yet to read all of, but the ones referenced in this blog were obviously used for research. If you're looking to learn more about the history of voting rights, here's a few places you can start... 

See what'd I tell ya, brief discussion, right? "Brief" but important! Props to all that did read the entire post. And thanks! 

Stay tuned for next post that'll discuss the history of the Edgehill Polar Bears. 

'Til next time, 


lucille ball


Sarah is a Program Coordinator with Metro Archives. Her interests and areas of expertise are history, reading books (of any kind), music, travel, Harry Potter, and bingeing a good comedy series. When not in Archives, she is either nose-deep in a book or planning her next trip. Learn more about the fascinating materials found at Metro Archives through their website.